Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Yingluck Shinawatra Takes Thailand's Center Stage

Now for the hard part

Thailand’s National Assembly on Aug. 3 ratified the telegenic Yingluck Shinawatra as Prime Minister, the second Shinawatra to take the job. Although she has said she has no intention of being a clone of her celebrated still-fugitive brother Thaksin, it remains to be seen how far she will stray from his line, if at all.

The 44-year-old Yingluck, a political neophyte, won wide acclaim for her poise and ability to think on her feet. But looming over the election results, of course, is Thaksin himself, who supplied the slogan for the Pheu Thai campaign, “Thaksin Thinks, Pheu Thai Acts” – a pretty definitive statement about his view of Thai politics.

Thaksin remains outside the country for now, strategizing his comeback from his base in Dubai. Overseas, countries that had viewed him as a pariah have now begun to free him from the travel restrictions they had placed on him after he had fled Thailand on corruption charges, pursued by the soon-to-depart Foreign Minister, Kasit Piromya, often described as Thaksin’s number-one enemy for his zeal in seeking to chase Thaksin to ground.

Once the new six-party government is formed, it faces major issues well beyond the timeless ones of energetic political corruption, a substandard education system, infrastructure bulging at the seams and a poverty-stricken rural northern area. Yingluck must also deal urgently with some sort of reconciliation process in a deeply polarized society; and the liberation of those who remain in prison after mass arrests after a crackdown on protests in May 2010.

A military reshuffle is probably on the cards to rid the armed services of Thaksin’s implacable enemies, including Prayuth Chan-Ocha, the head of the army; the final disposition of the Preah Vihear Temple, which both Cambodia and Thailand claim, and others. Despite Thaksin’s lip service to amnesty, he has proven in the past that he can be ruthless and vindictive and there is no reason, despite his mellow press statements, that he won’t be again.

But the biggest issue is how to stage Thaksin’s return to Thailand and the return of the Bt46 billion (US$1.55 billion at current rates) that a court took away from him two years ago. Another big question, and one that remains unspoken even as it looms over the country, is the waning health of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 84, long the single steadiest pillar in Thai society, and the likelihood that his son, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, will replace him despite the apparent misgivings of the palace guard.

Yingluck’s position is not absolutely secure although the magnitude of the Pheu Thai Party victory appears to have at least temporarily intimidated the military, which has largely run the country since the coup that ended the absolute monarchy in 1932. The victory has also quieted – at least for now – the royalist People’s Alliance for Democracy, the Yellow Shirts whose violent actions in the streets helped to bring about the end of Thaksin’s premiership in 2006 and who thwarted all attempts for any kind of stability sought by the surrogate political parties that he put in place afterwards.

The Yellow Shirts were supporters of the previous Democrat government, which was headed by Abhisit Vejjajiva. If Thaksin comes looking for him, Sondhi Limthongkul, the publishing magnate who led the Yellow Shirts and played a major role in funding them, will probably be in trouble. There are already unconfirmed reports in Bangkok that Sondhi’s empire is facing funding problems.

The Network of Citizens Against Amnesty for Thaksin Corruption, headed by Kaewsun Atibodhi and Dr Tul Sitthisomwong, who lead yet a third force called the Multicolored Shirts, have accused Yingluck of lying in the asset-concealment case against her brother. They have been collecting petitions to support their campaign and say they will file a complaint against her with the Department of Special Investigations, seeking to oust her from power.

Even before the assembly convened on Aug. 1, Thaksin has been demonstrating just how much – or how little – his sister is in charge. On July 29, word leaked to newspapers that Kittirat Na Ranong, a former businessman and most recently head of Shinawatra University, established by Thaksin, would head the foreign ministry. Kittirat was once the youngest-ever president of the Stock Exchange of Thailand. His appointment could signify a possible return to the commerce-driven diplomacy that was a Thaksin foreign policy trademark when he was prime minister from 2001-2006.

It also indicates, in case anybody doubted it, the extent to which Thaksin, and not his sister, is driving the government. As Asia Sentinel reported on July 30, a Foreign Ministry source said Thaksin specifically handpicked Kittirat to serve as the new foreign minister. Kittirat has always been politically vocal. In 2007, for example, Kittirat openly talked about Thailand’s political illness, referring to the cancerous patronage system as a factor that “rotted” Thai society. He said that he was a supporter of meritocracy, good judgment and ethics in business, something that was only remotely associated with Thaksin’s approach of governance.

Kittirat is well connected in the business community both within and outside Thailand and is well known in the region. Thus, his position as Thailand’s foreign minister could help repair the image of the country that has been tainted by the Abhisit government and in particular by Kasit, his predecessor. With no particular baggage, he stands a good chance to clean up the artificially orchestrated confrontation that the military and the pro-Royalists Yellow Shirts engineered with Cambodia over the Preah Vihear temple.

In the meantime, the Red Shirts are said to be demanding top positions in the Cabinet despite the fact that Pheu Thai party leaders said in July that that they would prefer to keep the Red Shirts out because of a concern that the participation of the radicals might taint the coalition that Yingluck heads. The Red Shirts believe they played a major role in the Pheu Thai Partyvictory and should be rewarded for it.

The hardest portfolio, as it has traditionally been, is the Finance Ministry. The current minister Korn Chatikavanij, has been given high marks by the international financial community. It is questionable if his successor will be able to do as well. That is because Thaksin, from outside the country, made an outlandish series of populist promises that would be virtually impossible to keep without bankrupting the country, including a pledge of a Bt300 minimum wage, solving Bangkok’s perennial flood problems, building a new financial capital city, constructing 10 new electric light rail lines with a fixed fee of Bt20 (US.70¢) per ride, raise the minimum wage, boost rice prices, build five high-speed rail lines and supply tablet computers to students.

Housing, Thaksin also said, would be built for students and the poor to rent at Bt1,000 per month and eradicate poverty in four years. He would impose a debt moratorium on borrowers who owe between Bt500,000 and Bt1 million for three to five years, reduce the corporate minimum income tax from 30 percent to 23 percent and guarantee university graduates a minimum salary of Bt15,000 per month – without saying what the jobs would be.

The Red Shirts are also demanding the freeing of all political prisoners, including those jailed or charged under the country’s lèse-majesté law, the ending of censorship of all types, especially the internet and community radio stations and the scrapping of the lèse-majesté and computer crimes laws. The more extreme of them are demanding that Abhisit and his deputy Suthep, along with Generals Anupong Poachinda and Prayuth, be jailed for ordering the crackdown that resulted in the deaths of more than 90protesters in May of 2010.

Other problematical portfolios include the Justice Ministry, which will be charged with administering the blanket amnesty programme that Yingluck campaigned on, including, of course, amnesty for her fugitive brother. The armed forces ministry could be the most difficult, given that the military remains not only Thaksin’s bitter enemy but determined to run the country, as it has done largely for the last 80 years.

Information and Communications Technology will be closely watched to see if the incoming minister has close ties to Shin Corp, the telecommunications empire that Thaksin made his fortune from, and which was the source of the charges of corruption that made him a fugitive.

In any case, the bombings and riots that tore apart the society for months are quiescent, at least for now. If that continues, the country is far better off than it was. The business community, both domestic and international, has largely ignored the political situation through all the troubles in the five years since Thaksin was driven from power. Thailand can – at least for now – get on with the business of business. Asia Sentinel

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